The Roomba Takes Up Yard Work

Roomba has been old enough to mow lawns for a few years now; iRobot introduced their Roomba vacuum cleaner back in 2002. Now, iRobot plans to release an outdoor version of the popular Roomba home chore robot that can keep your lawn looking trim and tidy. Terra should be available to consumers in the U.S. later this year.

The Terra lawn mowing robot

Terra looks like a rugged, overbuilt Roomba. It’s a bit bigger and boxier with large, exposed wheels that have enough tread to get purchase on a grassy lawn. The robot can move in straight and even rows, clipping each blade of grass as it goes. It will be able to go up hills, clear uneven terrain, and avoid rocks, roots, and other obstacles.

Moving from vacuuming robots to lawn mowing robots is a natural progression. Mowing a lawn and vacuuming are fairly similar tasks, after all: you walk back and forth while pushing a machine. You would think that equipping a Roomba with off-carpet wheels and a lawnmower blade would be the only thing necessary to create a lawn mower robot. Getting from carpet to grass wasn’t quite that simple, however.

Roomba and Terra technology is a bit different. Instead of infrared beams that detect walls and obstacles, you must create a boundary to keep Terra off the sidewalk and out of the flower beds. You do this by having wireless beacons professionally installed in your yard to establish its working area. Terra keeps three beacons in its line of sight at all times, measures travel time between beacons, and compares the beacons to a programmed map of the lawn to determine location. This allows Terra to mow your lawn without human supervision.

Terra will also come equipped with anti-theft software; it will completely shut down and become unusable if it’s removed from the safety of your lawn.

There are still problems to overcome with real world robots

Lawn mowing robots like Terra demonstrate a cool new use for robots. They also demonstrate some of the hurdles that roboticists will have to overcome to deploy robots in the real world.

Safely and effectively navigating uncontrolled environments remains one of the biggest challenges for robots. There are too many unpredictable variables in the real world to deploy most of the robots that are currently available to us. The beacons that define Terra’s boundaries aren’t unlike safety barriers used for stationary industrial robots.

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